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Di Leo: The Military Pension – A Nation’s Debt of Honor 

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Margaret Corbin at Fort Washington by Don Troiani

By John F. Di Leo - 

Reflections on the Anniversary of the Congressional Decision to Award a Pension to Margaret Corbin 

Some serve in the military for years and years, never seeing action in combat; others see action before their training is even complete.  Today’s story concerns a moment of tragedy and heroism at one of the worst days of the War of Independence:  November 16, 1776, the Battle of Fort Washington. 

One of the legendary characters of our Revolutionary War is the valiant Molly Pitcher, a female volunteer who operated the cannon in battle, as courageously and precisely as any male soldier.  

This may sound like an easier task than it really was. Weapons today have precision-calibrated sights, often scopes, lasers, or high-tech navigation systems that use heat-seeking technology to keep changing trajectory even after they’ve been fired.  During the Revolutionary War, a cannon weighed thousands of pounds, and every step was completely manual, from loading to aiming.   One or two artillery soldiers in front would load the powder, wadding and cannonballs; one or two others would apply their best efforts of physics and geometry to aim and fire the weapon from the back. 

 Molly Pitcher herself is a legend, as there was nobody by that exact name in the war, and they certainly didn’t recruit women for such a dangerous position in battle. 

Women served the war effort in many ways – some very dangerous indeed – but never in battle, at least, not on purpose.  There were women in the Culper spy ring, General Washington’s super-secret intelligence-gathering operation.  There were women who manufactured bullets from donated steel and iron; there were women who sewed clothes or made boots for the soldiers.  There were women who manufactured gunpowder.  There were women who cooked for the troops, especially during the long stays at Winter Quarters each year.  And of course, there were women who served as nurses for the thousands of sick and injured troops. 

But men served in the artillery, and one in particular was John Corbin of Pennsylvania, recruited in 1775 at the beginning of hostilities.  By November, 1776, he had been at war for over a year; he knew how to fire a cannon pretty well by now.  The very real tale of his wife’s service is believed to have been one of the inspirations for the legendary character of Molly Pitcher, along with such others as Mary Hays of New Jersey. 

John Corbin‘s wife was the former Margaret Cochran. Born in 1751 on what was then the distant frontier – Pennsylvania's western edge – Margaret was orphaned at the age of five, during the French and Indian War (as we Americans refer to the conflict known to Europe as the Seven Years War). 

Young Margaret and her brother were visiting their uncle when an American Indian raiding party attacked their home, killing their father immediately and carrying off their mother, never to be seen again.  The children were raised by their uncle, and in 1772, Margaret married John Corbin, another Pennsylvania farmer.  

War broke out less than three years later, and John Corbin was quick to enlist.  He joined the First Company of the Pennsylvania Artillery in 1775.  As the couple had no children, and apparently no other close family for her to stay with, Margaret Corbin joined the troops in what was known as the crowd of “camp followers” – the women and children who travelled behind the troops, many of whom were wives and mothers of soldiers, many of whom helped out with the tasks described above.  These were primarily unpaid volunteers, and many of them were often more trouble than they were worth, truth be told, but they were a fact of life for troops in those days. 

Margaret Corbin watched her husband and travelled with his unit, until everything went wrong on November 16, 1776. 

 

The Battle of Fort Washington took place at the north end of Manhattan Island.  It was an unmitigated disaster.  The Americans knew that New York would be difficult to defend against any army, almost impossible against a naval power like England. 

And then came the numbers. 

In the fall of 1776, the British landed an incredibly large force at New York.  Fighting an equal number of expert troops would have been hard enough, considering the Redcoats’ superior training, arms, and other supplies… but the English went all the way, throwing some 25,000 troops at New York all at once.   

The Battle of Fort Washington alone saw action between about 3000 Americans and 8000 Englishmen and Hessians.  It was both a naval and land battle, since the artillery section was focusing on trying to sink British ships headed up the Hudson.  The Americans had been effective for weeks in this effort, but could not hold up against such a concentrated force in a single, pitched battle.  

On November 16, British General William Howe sent three separate attacks against Fort Washington, each led by talented and experienced commanders - Generals Hugh Percy, Edward Mathew, and Charles Cornwallis.  The battle was over by 3:00pm, as American General Robert Magaw found himself forced to surrender the fort.  

For weeks before this battle, this stretch of the Hudson had been a dangerous place for British ships to pass, as our cannons fired from a safe and protected distance, but once this battle was joined, the British had the numbers they needed to move in and wipe out our effective artillery. 

John Corbin is reported to have started out loading his cannon, moving over by midday to take over the firing when the soldier who had been aiming and firing was killed.   His wife Margaret, close at hand and just as brave, moved into the loading position, prepping the gun after each blast for the next round. 

Then her husband too was killed, and she was reportedly all that was left of the crew on that particular gun. 

The battle was going poorly by now, and it was easy to see that every shot was needed; we couldn’t leave a cannon unmanned.  So Margaret Corbin took on both positions, first loading, then aiming and firing his cannon.  

Margaret Corbin was reportedly so accurate in her aim, she was our best weapon on the field, so the British side made her their chief target.  In order to disable that cannon, the Hessians concentrated their aim on her position, and she kept on firing while being hit again and again, in the jaw and chest.  It was reported by eyewitnesses that only when she was fully disabled by a blast that shattered her left arm, did she finally collapse near her fallen husband, unable to keep fighting anymore. 

Following the surrender of Fort Washington, the Redcoats took all the survivors – almost 3000 people – as prisoners of war.  Many spent considerable time suffering aboard the miserable British prison ships, but they released most of the injured on parole rather promptly, since people injured as badly as Margaret Corbin was certainly couldn’t fight again anytime soon anyway. 

She was sent up the Hudson to the military base at West Point, now a service academy, but back then an important military fortress.  As badly wounded as she was, she couldn’t even graduate to serving the other troops as a nurse or cook. 

Margaret Corbin’s case proved quite a challenge for the United States government.  Her heroism was undeniable, even inspirational, so she certainly deserved whatever thanks our young nation could give her… unfortunately, it couldn’t give her much. 

The US government was, after all, essentially bankrupt.  The United States had never been a country in peacetime; it was literally born in war, so the country was born in a period of debt.  The Continental Congress had to find ways to buy ships and ammunition, to pay and feed soldiers, before it could even think about finding a way to tax its citizens to fund this war effort. 

Now the country was having to sort out such challenging questions as what financial and other resources to provide to veterans who had been wounded in combat. The legislatures had no money, but they hoped to someday. They couldn’t put off the question very long. What should we provide to those who are disabled while serving their country? 

Even harder, though, was this odd case. Margaret Corbin wasn’t even a soldier. She was a civilian, who stepped up in our very darkest hour, exposing herself to musket fire and cannonball, in her heroic effort to defend her lost husband’s fellow soldiers. 

A legalist might say that we owed her nothing. She didn’t sign on with any contract; nothing was promised, so nothing is owed.  She ran a risk that was never asked of her. 

But a patriot would naturally never consider such a refusal.  Patriots who heard the story of Margaret Corbin were immediately overwhelmed by appreciation and compassion, at the thought of this woman losing her husband and then immediately taking over his post without a second thought.   

Such devotion must be appreciated and recognized. 

But how?  Whatever government does in any case is precedent for the future.  What could they offer her without establishing an expectation by other civilians that would be unreasonable in the future? 

The state legislature of Pennsylvania was first to act. Her home state granted her thirty dollars to help with immediate expenses. This doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t, but it’s a little more than it might seem.   

Thirty dollars in 1777 is estimated as being worth somewhere between $500 and $1000 today, but that's not really a helpful comparison because it really depends on what you were buying.  Comparing 18th century dollars with 21st century dollars requires more than math; it’s about understanding the relative differences between the products you might be purchasing.  Two things that might have similar prices today might have had wildly different prices back then, one much less and the other much more.  It’s probably most helpful to consider that, at the time, that $30 payment was about a month or so of work, when a dollar per day would not be an unusual wage for a housekeeper or common laborer. 

More pressing was to think of Margaret’s life beyond her immediate recovery at West Point.  Her unusual case was referred to the Continental Congress.  They weighed the challenges – her volunteer status and the loss of her husband, her heroism and her terrible injuries – and they recorded eyewitness reports of her courage and skill with the cannon in their deliberations.   

On July 6, 1779, the Continental Congress decided to provide Margaret Corbin with a lifetime pension, half the monthly wage of a currently-serving soldier.  In addition, over the years, she was part of what the Board of War called “the Invalid Regiment,” also known as “the Corps of Invalids,” a group of disabled veterans who lived at or near West Point and cared for each other as their health and handicaps allowed. 

Margaret Corbin was never wealthy, but she lost more than wealth in the service of her country.  She lost her husband and her health, and she lost the ability to earn a living ever again.  While many good individuals recognized her plight and did what they could for her – the prominent civic leaders from her state of Pennsylvania, the great artillery General, Henry Knox, etc. – a wounded warrior represents a special debt owed by the national government, one that the government takes on the very day it decides to raise an army and go to war. 

The separate colonies had only started to work together, very loosely, with the formation of the first Continental Congress in 1774.  The Second Continental Congress had only just declared independence in July of 1776.  The government that put John Corbin into battle still had no real taxing power, no ability to pay salaries for the day, let alone pensions for the future, when the Battle of Fort Washington ended John’s life and left Margaret permanently handicapped.   

The politicians of both the individual states and the national (federal) government all knew they would have such obligations, and they considered them daily, but they had no real solution for years afterward.  As the war went on, year after year (it was eight and a half years from Lexington and Concord to the signing of the Treaty of Paris that formally ended our Revolutionary War), the Continental Congress issued IOUs for services rendered, goods purchased, injuries suffered and lives cut short.  Congress had no real way of paying these debts while it was at war with Great Britain. 

It was, in fact, primarily the continued inability to find a solution to this problem that led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and the design of a new and stronger central government for these United States.  The federal government that finally took office in 1789 was finally empowered to carry out the promises our leaders had been making for 15 years by then. This new government was able to fulfil its obligations to both current soldiers and past ones, both healthy retirees and injured veterans… and this new government could finally make possible a strong enough economy to afford both its current and past obligations. 

Margaret Corbin’s heroism helped hammer this point home, as her story was inspiring and tragic, all at once.  She lived out her remaining years near West Point, then died in her late forties, presumably before the turn of the 19th century. 

Her story was never forgotten, however, and the tough frontier lady who stepped up to fire on British ships on the Hudson River became a part of American legend.  She has been a role model for the artillery for 200 years, and as her story melded with the somewhat similar story of Mary Hays at the Battle of Trenton in the popular culture, the character of “Molly Pitcher” soon became one of the first heroes any American child learned about. 

Looking back after two and a half centuries, it’s easy to be overwhelmed… with pride, in the courage of the American soldier… with astonishment, at the ability and sense of duty of an untrained gunner, literally moments after seeing her husband die in battle… with frustration, at the financial challenge of a bankrupt government, trying to find a way to meet its obligations to its most courageous veterans. 

Those were hard years, both during and after the war, but it was the knowledge of people like Margaret Corbin, and the sense of duty of people like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, that kept our leaders’ eyes focused on the goal, to meet these obligations somehow. 

By giving us such role models, Divine Providence blessed our nation from the very start. 

Copyright 2021 John F Di Leo  

John F Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, writer and actor.  His columns have been found in Illinois Review since 2009. A collection of his Illinois Review columns on vote fraud is available on Amazon, either as eBook or paperback, entitled “The Tales of Little Pavel.” 

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For further reading about Margaret Corbin and the Battle of Fort Washington, see 

"Who is Margaret Cochran Corbin?"

"Margaret Cochran Corbin" 

"1776" by David MccCullough

Portrait shown: "Margaret Corbin at Fort Washington," by Don Troiani

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